A Herculean Concealment Effort Afoot at Nuclear Site near Qom
Tehran's consent to a visit by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to the newly-revealed “second enrichment site” on October 25 appears on the face of it to be gesture to meet some of the demands presented by the six powers at their meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1.
But what does it mean? What will the inspectors actually see on their visit?
Not much, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources, since thousands of laborers, engineers and technicians have been toiling away day after day to hide or remove any incriminating evidence of illicit activity. The work crews have been picked up by American, Israeli, Russian and probably French satellites as well as their convoys pull in to the site early mornings and collect them well after nightfall.
None of those governments have made this finding public.
The Iranians are worried that the work crews may not sterilize the site in time for the inspection. Their original plan was to delay it for three months. They had to cut this down to three weeks because of the unrelenting pressure from US president Barack Obama and the IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's early visit.
Our sources report that the site itself is called Fardou after a small village some 60 km south of the religious center of Qom, although the site is north of Qom. It was named to commemorate the 151 Fardou villagers who fell in battle during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq.
The site is near a large military base. Iran had planned to install a dense anti-aircraft defense network, consisting mainly of Russian TOR-M1 anti-aircraft missile batteries, to ward off a possible aerial attack on the complex. But Russia's missile shipments suddenly dried up pursuant to its new understandings with the US (read the two articles on the new Russian-American alliance in this issue). The air defenses of other nuclear locations were accordingly cut back to provide Fardou with extra protection.
40-meter concrete ceilings
As additional precautions, the equipment including the centrifuges has been placed in large chambers hollowed out in the mountainside or sunk 80 meters underground. Their ceilings are lined with concrete layers 40 meters thick (!) for protection against American bunker busters. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts report that the latest US GBI-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrators can penetrate 60 meters underground before exploding.
For further concealment, the Iranian workmen are throwing up new walls to seal sensitive machinery from sight. Physicists are making sure no radioactive traces leak out. The Iranians have long experience in hiding components of their nuclear program from IAEA inspectors and are familiar with their detection devices.
When the Fardou site came to light, Tehran claimed that no more than 3,000 centrifuges would be installed there because it was just a research center and the bulk of its uranium enrichment operations remained in Natanz. But our intelligence sources report that the Fardou plant was planned to secretly accommodate up to 60,000 centrifuges, including a new generation of the machines. The technology purchased on the black market enabled Iran to manufacture centrifuges which are faster than the P-1 P-2 models purchased under the counter from Pakistan's Abdul Qadir Khan and installed at Natanz.
How did Iran scoop Obama’s scoop?
Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources report a major to-do in Western intelligence circles over Iran's nuclear facility near Qom.
In an interview with Time, CIA chief Leon Panetta reported Thursday, Oct. 8, that in January, when President Obama took office, he decided to build a special dossier on the hidden nuclear site. By then, US intelligence had ruled out the possibility that Fardou was a red herring planted to divert Western attention from genuine nuclear sites operating secretly in other parts of Iran. Panetta used the help of French, British and Israeli intelligence services for finding out what was going on at the concealed installation.
Obama first planned to give the Iranians most of September to announce they were coming to the talks with the Six Powers (which did indeed take place on Oct. 1 in Geneva), the CIA chief revealed. If they refused, he would disclose the existence of the covert nuclear project in his Sept. 23 speech to the UN General Assembly.
At the last moment, he cut the revelation from his UN speech, but two days later, called an urgent news conference in Pittsburgh on the sidelines of the G20 summit and broke the news together with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and UK prime minister Gordon Brown, whose support he had meanwhile enlisted.
The news conference became urgent after Obama discovered Iran had stolen his thunder. Tehran had notified the IAEA that a uranium enrichment facility was operating on uranium enrichment at a separate site near Qom, on Sept. 21 – that is, two days before Obama's UN speech.
One of the hard questions asked now is: How did the Iranians discover the contents of the US president's speech including his plan to reveal the existence of their covert facility early enough to beat him to the punch? Possible answers include US administration informants, foreign political or intelligence interests or even a mole concealed in the upper reaches of US government.
Any of the three answers is bad because they all suggest that Tehran is ahead of the game and knows exactly which of its secret facilities is under CIA surveillance